On paper, Russia is a federal democratic state. In practice, however, many regard it as a dictatorship built around one man, President Vladimir Putin, who has been the leader of the Russian Federation since the year 2000. Russia has all the working parts of a democratic state, but since Putin took power, experts believe these working parts have been made to serve him and those close to him. Today, many believe that Putin now controls all levers of power in the country.
Post-Soviet Russia’s Democratic Institutions
On December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The Russian Federation, formerly the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, was one of 15 former Soviet republics to become independent. From this point onward, Russia began a chaotic transition from a communist dictatorship to a capitalist, multiparty democracy.
In 1993, a new constitution was ratified, formally making the country into a federal, democratic republic. This constitution supposedly protects people’s fundamental human rights, such as freedom of expression and freedom of association. Article 10 of the constitution mentions the executive, legislative, and judicial branches that one would expect to find in any modern democracy, as well as the powers of those branches. It also proclaims the independence of the three branches.
The executive branch of Russia’s government is headed by the President. The President of the Russian Federation is supposed to be the ultimate guarantor of the fundamental rights and freedoms of the Russian people. He or she is responsible for maintaining the country’s sovereignty, coordinating the function and interaction of state bodies, determining the basic objectives of both foreign and domestic policy, and representing Russia on the international stage. The Russian President is also the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces. He or she is directly elected by Russia’s voters for a term of six years.
It is the job of the Russian President to appoint a Prime Minister, which must be approved by the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, known as the Federal Assembly. The Prime Minister then appoints members of his or her cabinet, who head government ministries and departments, such as the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Article 94 of the Russian constitution puts legislative power in the hands of the Federal Assembly, which is a bicameral legislature composed of two houses. The lower house is the previously-mentioned State Duma, and the upper house is called the Federation Council. The State Duma is composed of 450 members, who are elected for terms of five years. The Federation Council consists of two representatives from each constituent entity of the Russian Federation. One representative represents the legislative branches of the constituent entities, and the other represents the executives of those entities. Also, the Russian President has the right to appoint his own representatives to the Federation Council, so long as their numbers do not exceed 10% of all its members.
The Constitution of the Russian Federation also establishes a judicial branch that is supposed to act independently of the executive and legislative branches of government. The highest courts in Russia are the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation and the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. Judges of both the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court are appointed by the Federation Council based on a proposal by the Russian President. The Russian President also appoints the judges of the federal courts.
The Emergence Of Vladimir Putin
Between 1991 and 2000, Russia’s transition to democracy was chaotic and fraught with challenges. The economy was contracting, so many Russians found themselves poor and destitute. The country was also suppressing an armed, separatist rebellion in the Republic of Chechnya, one of Russia’s federal entities, located in the south of the country. Nevertheless, Russia was emerging as a vibrant, multiparty democracy. That is, until shortly after the turn of the century.
On New Year’s Eve in 1999, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who led the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, resigned his position and turned power over to his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who would subsequently win the presidential elections of that year. Putin gained popular support for his actions in Chechnya after he became prime minister in the summer of 1999. Shortly after becoming president, he worked successfully to stabilize Russia’s economy, earning him even more popular support. This popular support paved the way for his ability to make gradual changes to the operations of the Russian government over the years that followed.
Putin Consolidates Power
Arguably the first step Putin took to consolidate his power came in 2001, when the Russian government took over ORT and NTV, two of the most popular independent media outlets in the country. This was the beginning of Putin’s crackdown on the media in general. Over the next few years, he would work to overhaul Russia’s political institutions to centralize power under him. He also established his own political party, the United Russia party, which would go on to dominate the legislative branch of Russia’s government.
In 2008, Putin had to resign the Russian Presidency as he was only allowed to serve two consecutive terms in line with the country’s constitution. Thus, he became prime minister once more until 2012, when he was allowed to run for the Presidency again. Between 2008 and 2012, it was generally assumed that even though another person was serving as the president, the real power remained with Putin. In 2012, Putin again won the presidential election. He then had the constitution amended to add an extra two years to his four-year term, so that he could remain president until 2018 when he was then elected to a second term. Thus, he can remain in power until 2024. Some, however, believe that he will seek to amend the constitution so that he can rule beyond the end of his second consecutive term.
Opposition to Putin’s rule has not ceased, but opposing the Russian President can lead to dire, if not fatal, consequences. Putin has been accused of assassinating some of his critics on both Russian and foreign soil. Protests in Russia are violently suppressed, and opponents of Putin are routinely arrested and jailed. Some are given lengthy prison sentences.
In the most recent case, Alexei Navalny, who is considered by many to be the most prominent opposition leader in Russia, was given a three and a half-year prison sentence for violating the terms of his probation. His probation is related to another sentence handed down to him for corruption charges viewed by many as political and baseless. Moreover, Navalny violated his probation when he sought medical treatment abroad after being poisoned by a nerve agent. Many suspect that Putin was behind the poisoning, which almost led to Navalny’s death. On the night Navalny was jailed, more than 1,000 of his supporters were also arrested.
Putin now dominates all aspects of Russia’s politics. Russia’s media is all but entirely controlled by Putin and his supporters. Putin has even built a kind of personality cult around himself, in the same way as other dictators throughout history have done. The wheels of democracy, in theory, are still turning in Russia. Elections are still held, but they are widely regarded as shams, especially since Putin and his allies always change the country’s election laws in their favor. In fact, even the poll workers themselves must be members of Putin’s United Russia party. Votes are counted behind closed doors, and the results are routinely suspected of being rigged. Many would argue that Russia is fast becoming a totalitarian dictatorship.